Follow the Leader?

processionary caterpillar courtesy hubpagesOn Wednesday, our nation marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The build-up to the occasion prompted me to read the speech again, and reminded me how it was inspired by the biblical prophets. Dr. King was a preacher, and this speech – like many of his speeches – was not only aimed at political action, but also grounded in the Bible.

A television commercial aired several times – perhaps you saw it – featuring Congressman John Lewis, who, 50 years ago, was the youngest speaker sharing the platform with Dr. King. Lewis said that after the assassination of President Kennedy, King told his closest associates that if Secret Service agents couldn’t protect the president, then anyone who really wanted to kill them would find a way. If they were going to follow King down the path of protest and non-violent civil disobedience, then they would have accept the possibility that it would cost them their lives.

The cost of life to faithful Christians who have witnessed to a different way of believing, speaking, and acting, is common throughout the great history of the Church. That’s one reason the New Testament verb “to witness” – martureo – is so closely related to the English word “martyr.” In the early days of the Church, witnessing to one’s faith and dying for one’s faith often were synonymous.

That’s why we have to be careful about taking Jesus’ words too figuratively in the 14th chapter of Luke. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” And Jesus might actually mean it. Certainly, the apostles thought he did, and the next few generations of persecuted disciples thought he did. Count the cost, says Jesus, for there is a price to pay in following my leadership.

Following this kind of leadership isn’t easy. One reason is that following Jesus is something we do across an entire lifetime. In any given season, we can count the cost, and pay the price, not with our physical death, but

  • by taking an unpopular stand,
  • by traveling in a direction opposed to family and friends,
  • by tithing finances to an important cause that might have been directed to a personal goal or dream.

Then, the following season, another such choice comes along. Some of the choices we make to follow Jesus may seem quite natural, but many may be excruciating difficult.

Following those who follow Jesus as leader isn’t any easier. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Remember your leaders … and imitate their faith,” but we’re not always sure that we want to do that, either. On the one hand, our human leaders are physically present here and now, and it’s easier to see how they put Christian principles into practice in today’s circumstances. On the other hand, our human leaders aren’t perfect, and we’re not always sure that they are worthy of our trust or emulation.

I don’t have all the answers about what it takes to be a good leader, but I do believe that the qualities of good leaders cannot be fully understood without also considering the qualities of good followers. Some ministers in their congregations are effective leaders, but in a presbytery committee are unable to get anything of significance accomplished. Some ministers are hated and reviled in one context, but loved and respected in another. There are probably many reasons to explain the differences, and sometimes it has to do with differences in the way the leader functions in different contexts. But sometimes, I think, a key difference is the presence or absence of good followers.

In my work in the presbytery, community, and here in First Presbyterian, I try to be not only a good leader, but also a good follower:

  • by understanding the boundaries of my leadership role, so that I can follow others as they lead in their roles,
  • by expecting leaders and committees to use good judgment in evaluating information and making decisions, rather than micromanaging or criticizing each step.

Being a good follower requires a certain amount of trust, and it’s not always easy for followers to find or feel that trust (But neither is it always easy for leaders).

Years ago, someone gave me an article that says something about the balance between leading and following. It’s called “Lessons from Geese,” and I’ve modified it only slightly to fit life in a congregation:

Fact 1: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird following. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if the bird flew alone.

Lesson: Christians who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier, because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Fact 2: Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.

Lesson: If Christians have as much sense as geese, they will stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go and be willing to accept their help as well as give help to others.

Fact 3: When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation, and another goose flies at the point position.

Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership – with people, as with geese, we are interdependent on each other.

Fact 4: The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep their speed.

Lesson: Christians need to make sure the honking from behind is encouraging – and not something else.

Fact 5: When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot, two geese drop out of formation follow it down to help protect it. They stay with it until it is able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out on their own, with another formation, or try to catch up with the flock.

Lesson: If Christians have as much sense as geese, they too will stand by each other in difficult times, as well as when we are strong. Join the Flock![1]


[1] I can’t identify the source, but believe it appeared in the Scottish Rite Journal.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 1, 2013.

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